Thursday, November 25, 2010

Warped Words for Twisted Minds: A Journalstone Anthology

This book (as might be evident from its title) is a chilling one.

JournalStone's 2010 Warped Words, for Twisted Minds

A collection of horror stories, ranging from authors around the world including compiler Christopher C. Payne (whose own contribution was a wonderfully thrilling story with a cool twist in the end), to Chandru Bhojwani (who I recently interviewed on my blog) - the book has a lot of different writing styles to offer. The book has stories that range from scary, to very scary, to don't read alone in your room scary, to nightmare-inducing scary, and each one is a work of art in its own right. In general, the quality of writing in this anthology is quite high, though naturally there were some stories and styles I liked better than the others. The book manages to retain the individual voices of the authors while still maintaining a fairly common tone throughout, which I think really adds to the book as a whole.

The book has stories to please many types of horror fans - stories in this collection range from stories about psychopathy, stories about ghosts, stories about zombies, and stories about tomatoes. (You have to read the last one to believe it. Trust me.) As someone who doesn't read much horror I cannot comment much on the plots, except to say that most of them seemed pretty ingenious to me, with a lot of twists that I found quite unexpected and a lot of different types of stories that managed to grip my attention throughout the collection. Some, like the ending of a story called 'Hips' gave me chills. Others made me re-read the story once. Or twice. Most of the endings in this collection are brilliantly written, actually, and definitely manage to leave you guessing about what happens next (as opposed to 'explaino' or 'tie up everything with a neat ribbon' endings, which I personally don't like and which I feel would never have worked with the style of this particular book.)

The length of the stories is quite well-chosen, and while some stories are longer than others, most are not so long that they turn you off and yet long enough to allow you to get an insight into the story itself. The authors are clever about what they reveal, and also about what they don't - it is remarkable how much of the book is actually about what the stories and characters don't say rather than what they do say. All in all, a book to scare the living daylights out of you, without any of the typical horror gore and violence that seems to desensitize rather than subtly scare you like these stories do.

Final thoughts: All in all, a collection of above par horror short-stories. Definitely a good-read if you are a horror fan.

Others thoughts: I've just finished A Hitchhiker's Guide to Galaxy and am reaching the conclusion of Vikram Seth's Suitable Boy. Since I'm going on a trip from the 27th to 4th (and will not be coming online in this time) I don't know how much of this I'll be able to review, but we will see. Until then, happy reading! :)

(Financial disclosure: Book source was the author.) 

Monday, November 15, 2010

Wedding Season by Katie Fforde

Wedding Season is a sweet, funny, human book.

Wedding Season: A Novel

Wedding Season is the story of a disillusioned wedding planner, Sarah; a multi-faceted make-up artist who must get away from her controlling boyfriend, Bron; a dress-maker who can make ethereal dresses but doesn't believe in her own beauty, Elsie; and two very frantic brides - Sarah's infuriating little sister, and Carrie Condy, starlet, who have happen to choose the same date, less than a few months away, and expect their perfect, fairytale weddings in this short period of time. And Sarah, of course, is given the delicate task of making all this work - from satisfying her own sister's huge demands on an almost non-existent budget to Carrie's own unrealistic demands and erratic moods - and give them both the wedding of this dreams. Add in a few hunky guys and a lot of romance, and you've got Wedding Season. While the book does fail a bit in the originality of plot or conflicts department, the story does manage to hold you interest due to the following factors.

The first is that the writing quality is good. Fforde writes a tight narrative with little or no crazy coincidences (the fact that both weddings are on the same day is clearly a plot convenience, but I guess we can overlook it for purposes of drama) and though the guys in the novel come across as pretty much jobless and helping the ladies for random stuff (and people do end up having a lot of surprising abilities) the story manage to flow along without becoming too unbelievable. The author writes at a fast pace that manages to tide over any plot issues and leaves the reader constantly turning the pages. She manages to avoid the crazy description and purple prose that often destroys such chick-flicks, and adds in just enough of each character to keep the reader entertained for a longer-than-average book as compared to other books in the same genre.

The second is that the characters, especially the three main ones, are very lovable. One can easily sympathise with Sarah, Elsie and Bron, and one or the other of their problems is sure to touch women everywhere. The supporting cast, especially the male characters, is slightly under-developed, as I pointed out above, but this fits in with the 'chick-flick' atmosphere the author is clearly going for. Highly secondary characters, like Sasha, the stylist, come of as highly-cliched and flat, mostly because the author spends little or no time with them and is moreover seeing them through the eyes of characters who don't have any reason to like these particular characters. Some, random characters, like the mother of Bron's boyfriend, are surprisingly touching and show a certain amount of depth that really adds to the beauty of the book as a whole.

Final thoughts: This book is a certified chick-flick, but within that it has an interesting (if somewhat cliched) plot, lovable characters, and tight-writing. Definitely readable.

Friday, November 12, 2010

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

A Thousand Splendid Suns will touch your heart.

A Thousand Splendid Suns

This seems like too simple a statement for such a profound book, but then, the author himself using very simple and subtle language to convey these same profound ideas. Even when he talks about brutal violence and heart-breaking sadness in the midst of the turmoil in Afghanistan, he uses a tone that seems distant and even indifferent to the plight of his characters. Far from detracting from the book, however, this tone adds to the beauty of the book by touching the reader even more. This book - a documentary of the plight of Afghani women - is even more touching than Hosseini's wildly famous Kite Runner, and has the capacity to make even the sternest of hearts sympathize, and the more sympathetic ones cry. No matter who you are - young, or old, male or female, Indian or Afghani - this book cannot fail to move you.

This book is the story of two powerful women - Mariam, a plain illegitimate child who is married off to the cruel Rasheed at the tender age of 15 (when he is nearly 50), and Laila, a beautiful, vivacious, intelligent girl who dreams of becoming a teacher but eventually ends up married to Rasheed as well by a cruel twist of circumstances. The characters in this story are extremely well-etched. They are real, easy to identify with, and have beautiful interpersonal relations. As such, the dynamic interaction between these two characters, the unlikely bond that forms between Laila and Mariam, and the affection which they have for each other and their children, and finally the amazing sacrifices they make for each other, forms my favourite part of this book. Supporting characters like Tariq and Rasheed are also wonderfully portrayed and really support the story, but Laila and Mariam steal away the show.

Though a story about the cruelty and brutality of Afghan, the book does not fail to also emphasise the beauty of the place and what it means to those who live there. Even as they talk of the oppression by the Taliban (and the cruel, barbaric list of laws that they draw up for women, which I found ludicrous but which forms the reality of life for these women), the book is also about the culture in Kabul, and what damage has been done to it, and also about how it still survives after this. There is one line in particular in the book, a line by 17th-century Iranian poet Saib-e-Tabrizi about Kabul, which incidentally also serves the basis for the title of the book, "One could not count the moons that shimmer on her roofs,
And the thousand splendid suns that hide behind her walls"
- that haunts the reader not only till the last page of the book, but till a long time afterwards.

Final thoughts: A brilliant, beautiful, heart-breaking book on the struggle of Afghani women against the oppression of the Taliban and domestic oppression. A must-read for the subtle imagery, beautiful characterization, and well-written narrative.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Brighter than the Sun by Julia Quinn

Brighter than the Sun is your regular aimed-at-teenage-girls book.

Brighter Than the Sun

All the elements of the typical romance are there - the regency era; cool, hunky, rakish hero; the prim and proper but secretly naughty good-girl heroine; a marriage of convenience; loads of drama; loads of love; and the happily ever after. The question here is whether Brighter than the Sun rises above the cliches of the genre into something new and inspiring and different to read. It was with a hope of something along these lines from highly acclaimed author Julia Quinn that I picked up this book. I was hoping that Quinn would write something new out of this done-to-death story.

I was unfortunately disappointed.

Lets make this clear. This book is not bad for its target audience. To the girl who adores sappy love stories (and I will admit here that I can be a bit like that too, only its a guilty pleasure), this story will no doubt deliver. Quinn mixes enough humor, beauty and gaiety into her story to make it both entertaining and readable, weaves a narrative interesting enough to amuse, and creates characters that are just about complex enough to actually care about. There is a lot of love. There is a lot of adoration. There is the perfect-marriage-under-imperfect-circumstances fantasy that a lot of the target audience will really enjoy. The writing quality is actually quite good and it comes across that Quinn has studied her craft well. As a package, the book is not dull enough to be disliked, and there is a lot in it for someone actually looking for this kind of book.

But for the more serious reader, there are some serious pit-falls. The plot hinges too deeply on coincidence (starting with the hero falling from a tree right into the arms of the heroine). Moreover, the plot is quite transparently lacking in suspense. You know exactly what is happening even when the author goes out of her way to hide it. The characters are really mono-dimensional, character traits seem to be added in convenience and some of them are really cheesy. There is little or no depth and little or no growth in the character arcs. The romance is totally unbelievable, and seems to rely mostly on physical attraction even though the author goes out of her way to claim it is not. And as a package, the whole thing is a mess that will make most discerning readers drop the book.

Final thoughts: If you like sappy romances, read the book. Otherwise (and perhaps even if), this book is avoidable thanks the forgettable plot, flat characters and cheesy romance. Quinn fails to deliver.

Other thoughts: I'm a little behind on the reviewing as opposed to the reading - and therefore I have loads of books lined up to review, from The Namesake to the Thousand Splendid Suns, Wedding Season and then of course The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy that I've just picked up, and The Color of Magic which I just found. Expect a lot of reviews in the next week.

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